Saving stray and feral cats
The moment you enter the Richville home of Jeanne Cannaday and Gary Ruehmann, you know you're in a house filled with love.
From the three dogs who greet you joyfully when you knock on the door, to the cats of every shape, size, age and description you find around just about every corner -- sleeping, playing, eating, or begging shamelessly for a quick petting -- the couple's home contains an overabundance of four-legged, furry friends.
Though their four-year-old non profit organization is known as Friends of the Feral Cat (FOTFC), both Jeanne and Gary are quick to point out that very few of the cats who find their way into the couple's home can truly be called wild, or incapable of being tamed.
"Out of the hundreds that have come to us, we've probably had seven or eight that were truly feral," Gary said.
"It's a misnomer," Jeanne agreed, adding that most of them are just scared, and will fight to get free because of that fear.
Indeed, the 30-odd cats that make their home with Jeanne and Gary (about a half dozen of whom are permanent residents) are generally a pretty friendly lot, despite the fact that most of them were deemed "wild" when the couple took them in.
One of their earliest residents, an orange tabby named Louie, had been trapped and anesthetized in order for the police to round him up and bring him to the couple's home.
"They were so sure he was wild," Gary says. "He was banging up against the sides of his kennel (trying to get out)."
Yet the next morning, when Gary reached into his kennel to put in some fresh water and food, the cat rubbed up against his hand and was as friendly as could be.
After a couple of weeks, Louie was allowed to leave the kennel and come outside to interact with the other cats and dogs. He's still there.
Louie's story is not uncommon, Jeanne said -- in fact, most of the cats that come to them would be classified as feral, though a few have simply been displaced by an owner dying or becoming incapable of caring for them.
The couple has also rescued several cats that had been deemed by the veterinarians who initially treated them as being too sick to be saved.
There was one cat they nursed back to health that had had a large chunk of its skin torn off by what the vet had deemed to be an eagle attack, and another that had a prolapsed rectum -- a severe condition in which the layers of a cat's rectum have been partially or completely displaced outside its anus.
In both cases, the vet had recommended that the cats be put to sleep -- yet today, they are happy and healthy thanks to the couple's tender, loving care.
Though they house dozens of cats in their home every day, not all of them are there to stay.
"They rotate through -- we adopt many of them out," Gary said. "It's sort of a revolving door."
In fact, Jeanne said, neither one of them is sure exactly how many cats have passed through their home since the day they found that first bunch of five motherless kittens living in their garage.
Before that day, Jeanne said, they didn't have any cats at all. Now, they have anywhere from two to three dozen living under their roof at any given time.
"We never thought we'd have this many," Jeanne said.
Still, they can't take in every homeless cat that they find -- especially since health issues have forced Gary to curtail some of his volunteer activities this year.
That's where the FOTFC comes in.
Friends of the Feral Cat
Friends of the Feral Cat, which is listed as "an unfunded pilot program of the Humane Society of Otter Tail County," actually had its beginnings about five years ago, from a conversation Gary and Jeanne had with two members of the Humane Society, Hazel Hovde and Mary Neubert, while sitting at Mary's kitchen table in Pelican Rapids.
Hazel and Mary are credited as the founders of the FOTFC. As its introductory brochure says, "FOTFC would not exist today if not for the efforts of two dedicated individuals, Hazel Hovde and Mary Neubert, Humane Society members from Pelican Rapids."
These two women, along with Gary and Jeanne, helped to establish a policy of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) with regard to controlling local populations of feral cats.
Rather than euthanizing the cats, they are instead trapped, neutered or spayed, then released back into their colony, where a caretaker is charged with providing them with food, water and shelter, caring for them when they are sick, and helping to remove any newcomers for either TNR (if feral), or adoption (if tame).
As Jeanne puts it, controlling the wild cat population is a bit like trying to fix a bathtub that's overflowing.
"You can sop up as much water as you want, but until you turn off the faucet, it's not going to stop," she said.
Since the program started in January 2009, there have been more than 950 cats spayed or neutered through the efforts of "a small group of dedicated volunteers," Jeanne said.
"We were hoping to reach 1,000 by our anniversary, but I don't think we're quite going to make it," said Gary with a smile.
While classified as "unfunded," the FOTFC has received a few "very generous" donations that have helped keep them afloat; still, more financial support is always needed, and welcomed, Gary said.
In addition, more volunteers are needed -- not only to help with TNR efforts, but also for record-keeping and other clerical duties, manning educational booths at various community events, helping to sell t-shirts and tote bags (fund-raising merchandise), and picking up money from donation boxes, among other efforts.
Most critical, Gary said, is the need for foster homes, where people will assist in the recovery of sick or injured cats, assist in finding permanent, responsible homes for kittens or cats that have recovered from injury and illness, prevent illness by maintaining medical records for cats in their care, and provide a home, socialization and individualized attention to cats that wouldn't thrive in a shelter setting -- often saving their lives by doing so.
"If someone is willing to provide cats with food, water and shelter, we'll work with them" to pay for the costs associated with spaying and neutering, Jeanne said.
Some area animal care facilities have been "very supportive" of the group's efforts, Gary said, by helping to make the cost of surgery and/or medications more affordable.
Some of those care facilities credited by FOTFC for their efforts include Weckwerth Animal Hospital and Maplewood Veterinary and Animal Hospital in Pelican Rapids, Lakes Veterinary Clinic in Battle Lake, Lakeland Veterinary Clinic and All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Perham, and Detroit Lakes' own Marshmallow Foundation/Lucky Dog.
The Humane Society of Otter Tail County and Minn-Kota People Advocating Animal Welfare Services (PAAWS) have also provided invaluable assistance, as well as a growing group of volunteers.
Though based in Otter Tail County, the group doesn't confine its services to residents of that county only; they often branch out to neighboring counties as well -- including Becker, Gary said.
Cats who have received treatment through FOTFC all have a notch placed in one of their ears, indicating that the cat has not only been spayed or neutered, but also received a thorough health check by a veterinarian to determine that they are free of communicable disease, received treatment for any internal or external parasites, received rabies and distemper shots, and unless indicated, have tested negative for heartworm, feline immunodeficiency virus (the cat version of AIDS) and feline leukemia virus.
"The benefits of our program touch everyone in the county," Gary wrote in a letter celebrating the organization's third anniversary.
"Friends of the Feral Cat's work has had a direct impact on feline overpopulation and the associated problems. Each cat trapped, neutered, vaccinated for rabies and distemper, micro-chipped for identification and returned to their original location is one less breeder of feral kittens.
"Cats that are returned are healthier having been treated for health issues. Those evaluated as socialized or not feral are selected out to be re-homed; kittens are fostered, socialized and adopted out. Each of these cats is one less animal that ends up being turned in to a shelter to be put down. HSOTC's own numbers indicated that since the establishment of the FOTFC program the shelters' euthanasia rate has decreased dramatically."
In short, the program is working. Jeanne said that the shelter in Pelican Rapids -- once "a good source of cats" for them -- is now reporting that "hardly any" feral cats are being brought in to them.
This week, the couple also met with some people in Fargo about establishing a similar program in Valley City, N.D.
The FOTFC has come quite a long way in four years.
"It's been quite an experience," Jeanne said.
For more information about the FOTFC, call 218-331-8802, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a letter to: Friends of the Feral Cat, 25 Mill St., P.O. Box 4, Pelican Rapids MN 56572.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.